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What Are “Romeo and Juliet Laws”?

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“Romeo and Juliet” Laws in Texas

In Texas, laws that deal with the issue of sexual relationships between young people are sometimes referred to as “Romeo and Juliet” laws. They are known by this title because, just like in the famous Shakespeare play, young couples who are in a consensual relationship may get into big trouble. Some of the laws prohibiting sexual contact between legal adults and minors may sometimes cause consenting couples to unintentionally break the law.

For example, before the passage of these laws, a couple that consisted of an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old who engaged in consensual sex could cause charges to be filed against the older partner. After the introduction of the “Romeo and Juliet” laws in 2007, that began to change.

The Role of Consent

In all states, the age of consent plays a big role in the prosecution of sexual assault cases. Although the age varies in certain states, it is generally considered to the age at which young people have the ability to understand sexual actions. In Texas, the age of consent is 17 years of age. That means that a person who is age 17 or older has the legal right to consent to sexual activity with someone who is older than them.

What happens when someone under the age of 17 engages in consensual sexual activity? That’s where Romeo and Juliet laws come into play. According to Texas law, if a person who is under the age of 17 engages in sexual activities with a person who is no more than three years older than them, then no crime has been committed. Before these laws were passed, the older partner in this relationship could be charged with indecency with a child, a second degree felony.

The primary purpose of these laws is to prevent a person who engaged in consensual sex from being forced to register as a sex offender for life. After several cases involving young people being forced to register as sex offenders made national news, the public demanded that the laws be changed.

However, these laws only apply if both partners are above the age of 14. A person who has sex with a person under the age of 14 could face felony charges, even if the sex was consensual and the partners were within three years of each other’s ages.

The Role of Gender

At present, the Romeo and Juliet laws only apply to heterosexual couples who engage in consensual sex while both partners are over age 14 and are within three years of each other’s ages. The wording of the law does not include language that refers to homosexual couples or homosexual intercourse.

This means that, in certain instances, a couple that engages in sexual conduct while one of the members is under age 17 could experience criminal charges. In these cases, the older partner might face felony charges of indecency with a child, even if all the other requirements of the Romeo and Juliet laws are met.

However, in 2013, a bill was introduced into the Texas State House to attempt to make the law gender-neutral. The bill would also give Texas judges the power to re-open cases that led to convictions before the Romeo and Juliet laws were passed. This would give them the authority to remove the sex offender registration requirement for previously convicted offenders who meet the Romeo and Juliet requirements.

Legal Defenses

Many cases that involve the Romeo and Juliet laws appear after the parents of a young person who is involved in a relationship with an older person file a complaint. However, these laws may protect the older person. In summary, a person who is facing charges of indecency with a child may have a defense to prosecution if:

  • The couple in the case engaged in consensual sex
  • The youngest partner in the case was aged 14 or older
  • The older partner in the case was no more than three years older than the younger partner
  • The older partner in the case has no sexually-based convictions on his or her record

If all of these conditions are met, the court may decide to drop the indecency with a child or other related charges against the defendant or offer a plea to a less serious offense.

If you or someone you know is facing charges similar to the Romeo and Juliet laws, contact the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky. Brett Podolsky can provide the legal representation needed when facing serious legal charges.

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